Do US dogs have better access to radiotherapy than Zimbabwean children with cancer?


BY Michelle C Madzudzo
Some people are of the misconception that cancer is a disease of the elderly, but  children can get cancer and their lives matter too. In every three minutes, somewhere some child is diagnosed with cancer. Of the estimated 300 000 children who will get cancer each year, 80% live in low to middle-income countries (LMIC) and have as little as 10-30% chances of being cured, compared to 80% or more in high-income countries.

On February 15, 2022, the world commemorated the International Childhood Cancer Day (ICCD) under the theme Better survival is achievable through your hands which has been designed to align with the World Cancer Day theme Close the care gap. The main  aim is  to raise  awareness about inequity in cancer care and explain barriers that exist for many people in accessing cancer services  and receiving the care that they need and how those barriers potentially reduce a person’s chances of surviving cancer.

How does ICCD make an impact?

ICCD is a global collaborative campaign to raise awareness about childhood cancer and to express support for children and adolescents with cancer, survivors and their families. The day promotes increased appreciation and deeper understanding of issues and challenges impacting children with cancer and the survivors. It also spotlights the need for more equitable and better access to treatment and care for all children with cancer, everywhere. ICCD encourages individuals and organisations to stand up and speak out for kids with cancer, survivors of cancer, and their families. It is a call for solidarity in action: joining voices, connecting forces and bringing together different initiatives that respond to the needs of children and adolescents with cancer, their families and survivors.

Wake-up call to closing the care gap

As an individual and as Talk Cancer Zim, we have been doing well to raise general awareness on cancer, what causes it, its signs and symptoms, treatment modalities, prevention tips — which is very  important but now there is need to also talk about access to cancer care. For me as a radiation therapist, it is all about radiotherapy. It’s high time we actively identified the gaps in cancer care and seek solutions thereto. One area which has proven very difficult to overcome over the years is lack of access to a reliable, consistent and affordable radiotherapy service for potential curative treatment. Why is it so difficult to close the care gap in childhood cancers? Zimbabwean children deserve better.

So a pitbull in Alabama is most likely to receive radiotherapy than children with cancer in Bulawayo. Imagine a dog with lymphoma in Miami receiving treatment while our own children are at home slowly dying because there is no radiotherapy services for them.

Being a  mother myself I don’t want to imagine what it feels like being stuck with a child with cancer at  home due to machine breakdowns. As a cancer caregiver, I have grown weary of these episodes that I have experienced for the past nine years I have served my community. How does one reassure a mother who calls everyday to check if the linear accelerator is working so that her four-year-old can resume radiotherapy?

Studies have shown that mothers with children with cancer often exhibit  symptoms similar to those of post-traumatic disorder. This can worsen if the child was undergoing radiotherapy and the equipment breaks down and the parent becomes helpless. Usually raising funds to be treated at a private facility or in another country takes time and is sometimes not possible.

So a dog with a lymphoma in the United States has a better chance of getting radiotherapy treatment than a child with cancer in Zimbabwe. This is a painful but realistic description of the status of radiotherapy services in Zimbabwe. It is reported that United States pets have access to radiotherapy machines. A 2020 research by Margaret Mcentee and John Farrelly counted at least 76 linear accelerators serving animals across the US. There is at least one radiotherapy machine for every 1,28 million cats and dogs in the US as compared to two functioning linear accelerators serving about 17 million people in Zimbabwe.

According to IAEA, for every 500 000 to one million people, there should be one to two linear accelerators serving them.

In Zimbabwe, we are looking at 17 to 34 linear accelerators. The country usually  operates on two linear accelerators at any given time.

Ideally, according to international standards, we need at least 17 machines but for children with cancer in Zimbabwe today, one functioning radiotherapy machine is what we need to save these poor souls. There is a critical need to revive the existing machines at our public institutions. This will go a long way in serving the lives of paediatric cancer patients requiring radiotherapy services and the adults as well.

Let’s all join hands in closing the care gap,  better survival is achievable through your efforts.

This must be everyone’s concern, churches, universities, healthcare funders, civil society, banks, philanthropists, everyone across the political divide. We want people who fight for strengthening and expansion of radiotherapy services, companies that commit their corporate social responsibility to cancer care and organisations/individuals that genuinely fundraise towards cancer care. There is need to come up with a shared vision as a people who desperately need such services.

  •  Michelle C Madzudzo is a radiation therapist and Talk Cancer Zim founder and president